Cerebral palsy is a disease involving physical disability that affects movement and posture — sometimes in a very debilitating and life-altering manner. It is the most common movement disorder in children and typically manifests itself by the age of three, although it is often present at birth. Unfortunately, cerebral palsy is incurable. It is also non-progressive, meaning that it doesn’t fluctuate in severity, such as is common with diseases like cancer and Crohn’s disease, which can go into remission.
Symptoms of cerebral palsy include pain, poor coordination, extreme muscle stiffness and weakness, difficulty with swallowing or eating, and tremors. Muscle stiffness is often so great that it results in a severely restricted range of motion. Other common symptoms are insomnia, other sleep disturbances, and impairments of speech, hearing, and vision (due to an eye muscle imbalance).
Between 30 and 50 percent of children with this condition also experience seizure disorders. In severe cases of cerebral palsy, blindness and/or deafness may result. Many children and adults with cerebral palsy suffer such significant muscle spasms and stiffness that they are bound to a wheelchair and unable to walk.
This is a disease mired in ambiguity in terms of its source; there is no single cause of cerebral palsy. It is believed that the brain’s motor centers become damaged during pregnancy, birth, or early childhood, but the exact causes of this damage remain uncertain. It is estimated that there are about 17 million people with cerebral palsy worldwide.
Possible sources of this condition include oxygen deprivation and bleeding within the brain. The disease is also somewhat complex in its manifestations and their classifications. For example, there are five categories of motor skills in the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS), with GMFCS Level I indicating the most capability and mobility, while Levels IV and V denote patients who are bound to a wheelchair and typically require continual care.
Cerebral palsy is often severe. Because it affects children, the emotional impact of this disease can be daunting. A few statistics are helpful in understanding the real-world impact that cerebral palsy can have on nearly 20 million children and adults around the world.
According to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance of Australia, of the children with the condition:
- 75 percent experience pain
- 25 percent have epilepsy
- 33 percent are unable to walk
- 25 percent are unable to talk
- 25 percent suffer from a behavior disorder
- 50 percent have an intellectual impairment
- 10 percent have severe vision impairments
- 25 percent have bladder control problems
- 20 percent have a sleep disorder
- 20 percent suffer from saliva control problems (drooling)
Sometimes nothing is as powerful as a personal testimony, especially when it provides one with a better understanding of the everyday life, and struggle, of very sick patients. Actually hearing the stories of those who suffer from cerebral palsy — or watching them medicate on camera and almost immediately gain relief — can be as powerful as digesting research findings or clinical studies.
Curtis Kile is a middle-aged cerebral palsy sufferer from Taylor, Michigan. Kile suffers from severe muscle spasms from his condition, which he says a small amount of smoked cannabis relieves. “I don’t smoke a lot…a couple of hits off of a pipe…or a joint. It relieves my spasticity.”
Sometimes relegated to a wheelchair for several days at a time, Kile has been able to manage his muscle spasms and enjoy a semblance of a regular life by smoking this medicinal herb. He is a strong proponent of cannabis legalization. “Until we get cannabis completely legalized, it’ll never be affordable and cheap enough for people to use it who really need it,” said Kile.
Jacqueline Patterson is a single mother who moved to California from Kansas City to gain access to medical cannabis (making her a medical cannabis refugee). Widowed when her husband committed suicide, Patterson was born with severe congenital cerebral palsy that affects her motor skills, including her speech, comfort, and mobility. As a result of her condition, she suffers from a severe stutter and major pain and weakness on her right side (a type of cerebral palsy called hemiplegia/unilateral). “The right side of my body is noticeably weaker than my left,” said Patterson.
Patterson described how her severe stutter is such a stigmatizing disability. “It’s very humiliating,” she said. Her right arm is continually tense, resulting in chronic pain that she has suffered since early childhood. “The first time I realized that cannabis helped me was the first time I smoked it. I smoke to be the mother that my children deserve,” she said.
During interviews, Patterson has bravely demonstrated the pronounced effect that smoking cannabis can have on her muscle stiffness and verbal stutter. She transmogrified from exhibiting a barely comprehensible and gratingly severe stutter to smooth, continuous speech after smoking a small amount of cannabis from a pipe on camera. Said Patterson — now succinctly enunciating her speech, completely void of the stutter that only minutes earlier afflicted each of her words:
“It really helps my speech. I feel much calmer and I feel like I can control the muscles that I couldn’t control before I smoked [cannabis].”
Patterson described how she suffers no negative side effects from cannabis, yet it is the best medicine she’s ever used to treat her cerebral palsy and the severe stutter that it causes for her. Despite suffering from a congenital condition and having consumed pharmaceutical drugs her entire life, she said cannabis is “the most effective treatment that I’ve found.”
Terri Argast is a 53-year-old patient from French Village, Missouri who has suffered from cerebral palsy from birth. She has undergone several surgeries in an effort to deal with her condition. Argast wore leg braces for 12 years, after which she underwent a successful surgery that forced her to learn to walk again.
Argast reported that she experiences no negative side effects from cannabis, a very different result from the drugs she had been consuming in an effort to reduce muscle stiffness and control pain. “It’s been a life-long struggle,” she said during an interview. After decades of consuming a litany of pharmaceutical drugs, she tried cannabis and experienced pronounced efficacy. Said Argas:
“I was totally surprised, because if I could do something like this and not have to take all the medicine I take, I would love it. I take way too many [pharmaceutical drugs] for someone my age…or for anybody. Just to be able to walk.”
Josh Blue, the stand up comedian who gained notoriety on Last Comic Standing, also reports that the use of cannabis helps to relieve some symptoms of cerebral palsy. Blue even uses cannabis when performing to keep spasticity at bay. During a discussion on Doug Benson’s “Getting Doug With High,” Blue explained how he continues to consume cannabis medicinally:
“What I was doing was putting edibles in water, and then drinking the candy.”
A 2007 human trial study published in the journal Reviews in Neurological Diseases involving a 45-year-old patient with cerebral palsy and epilepsy revealed that cannabis was an effective means of preventing seizures. Because it was found to benefit the central nervous system, benefits were also gained for the man’s cerebral palsy. Concluded the researchers:
“This case supports other anecdotal data suggesting that marijuana use may be a beneficial adjunctive treatment in some patients with epilepsy.”
A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation revealed that 63 percent of patients with cerebral palsy reported experiencing chronic, daily pain. Of all treatments surveyed, cannabis was rated to be the most effective for mitigating pain. The study concluded:
“Future research using clinical trial methods would further elucidate the specific pain treatments that are most beneficial for adults with cerebral palsy.”
More Research Needed
As has been echoed by the few studies that have been conducted regarding the efficacy of cannabis for cerebral palsy, more research is necessary before the medical establishment will embrace cannabis as a legitimate and prescribed therapy. Cannabis currently resides in Schedule I of the U.S. government’s Controlled Substances Act, putting it in the same classification as heroin and bath salts — where it is considered to be highly addictive and to have zero medical benefit. In fact, it is this Schedule I status that forces physicians to recommend, not prescribe, cannabis to patients in states where it is legal.
Less-restrictive Schedule II features dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine, which can legally be prescribed by a physician. Until cannabis is either fully removed from the Controlled Substances Act or is moved to Schedule III or lower, it will be extremely difficult and relatively impractical for universities and research organizations to explore its medical efficacy. Unfortunately, Congress has demonstrated not only little willingness to expedite this rescheduling, but has blatantly prevented research efforts and policy updates.